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Mario Balotelli's mercurial nature may be missed by many fans of English Premier League football, but there may be a few of his competitors, such as Scott Parker of Tottenham Hotspur, who are probably willing to help him pack his bags.
Mario Balotelli's mercurial nature may be missed by many fans of English Premier League football, but there may be a few of his competitors, such as Scott Parker of Tottenham Hotspur, who are probably willing to help him pack his bags.

Eccentrics such as Mario Balotelli put their own stamp on the game

Flawed and sometimes outrageous, complex characters in football such as Mario Balotelli will be missed.

"Modern" Manchester City fans will have shed few tears over the transfer of Mario Balotelli to AC Milan this week.

Perhaps a few of the old guard did, those romantic fools who believe that football should involve such whimsical concepts as "fun" and "entertainment".

The bulk of them, however, will have given his camouflaged Bentley a perfunctory wave - if their naked eye could even see such a cunningly disguised vehicle - before briskly turning back to business.

No time for such idle luxuries when you have a title to defend. And when I say "defend", I mean "wistfully wave off as it heads back across town".

It is the rest of the football family who will miss our idiot cousin. Those who did not pay his wages or tear out clumps of hair in frustration at the squandered talent (I sometimes wonder if his Mohawk hairstyle was in sympathy with those fans).

We will miss him because, despite an appalling disciplinary record of rash tackles, shoving matches and punch-ups - sometimes even involving opposing players - the Italian always seemed to be more complex than a standard "bad boy".

"Bad boys" are often little more than hired thugs whose brutality is deployed as part of a game plan. This was never the case with Balotelli, who was far too unpredictable for such a cynical role.

Indeed, his rashness was extremely costly to the club. In March 2011, his early red card against Dynamo Kiev spelt the end of City's run in the Europa League.

And City would have probably secured the Premier League title in far more timely and relaxing fashion last year had Balotelli not received a total of seven match bans in the second half of the season alone - four for a stamp on Tottenham Hotspur's Scott Parker in January and three for a sending off against Arsenal in April.

Also lumped under the catch-all banner of "bad boy" are those players whose off-pitch antics are both ugly and criminal: brawling in nightclubs, abusing women, getting into trouble with the law.

But while Balotelli committed some ugly crimes against fashion, he was more of a buffoon than a bully, more likely to require the services of the fire brigade or paramedics than the police. A far more fitting term for Balotelli would be "eccentric". These are rare creatures indeed, particularly in the English game, which is why we will miss him so much more than some 10-a-penny "bad boy".

It is ironic that a country which prides itself on its eccentricity has had to import most of its football oddballs, from Balotelli to Eric Cantona to Paolo Di Canio. For the home-grown variety, it is hard to think of many beyond Paul Gascoigne.

Perhaps it is precisely because of its all-conquering status as the national game that English football attracts so few eccentrics. Independently minded from a young age, they deliberately choose minority sports. For details, see Bradley Wiggins (cycling), Chris Eubank (boxing), Duncan Goodhew (swimming).

Perhaps there is also a social class element at play: eccentricity has traditionally been an upper-class luxury, while football tends to recruit from the masses. However, it is worth noting that of the three eccentric listed above, only Goodhew was privileged.

But probably the biggest factor of all is that football is a team sport in which eccentricity is tolerated only in exceptional services. It is no coincidence that most lists of footballing eccentrics tend to feature the very best players: Diego Maradona, Cantona, Bruce Grobbelaar, Gascoigne. In other words, if you want to be unpredictable, you had better back it up with some serious talent.

Sadly, as football becomes ever more professional and commercial, it seems likely that oddballs will become ever rarer. Eccentricity is stifled by formal education, flourishing best in the anything-goes arena of street football. Yet increasing numbers of footballers are hot-housed, from tender ages, in coaching academies.

Eccentricity creates terrible howlers as well as moments of brilliance. In the past, such embarrassments could be left on the pitch but in the digital age of omnipresent cameras and YouTube "#fail" combinations, they live forever. In such times, it will take ever braver men to stick their head above the parapet.

Likewise, with the financial stakes becoming higher and managers' jobs becoming less secure, it will take ever braver chairman and coaches to take on such risky prospects.

As a mere fan - one of the foolish and sentimental old guard who prefers entertainment to hard-nosed business - I mourn the passing of such eccentrics.

In the only slightly adapted words of Bruno Mars: It's a Beautiful Game, we're looking for something dumb to do, hey football, I think I wanna Mario.

 

sports@thenational.ae

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